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Mont Ventoux’s wild side: France Big Ride

In-depth
16 Jun 2022
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Riders flock to Mont Ventoux to experience its famous roads, but there are more ways to the top than those taken by the Tour 

Words Joe Delves Photography Matt Ben Stone

It’s mid-morning on the road above Bédoin and already cyclists outnumber cars more than ten to one. Most are already in their smallest gear and face a long struggle battling up perhaps the most famous mountain in cycling.

Climbing to 1,910m above sea level, Mont Ventoux stands alone, seemingly detached from any other range. This climb is a superstar in the cycling world – its profile unique, its Tour de France appearances many and its barren, weather-beaten summit legendary.

Ventoux draws riders from across the world to suffer in the wheel tracks of their heroes. Almost every metre of tarmac features graffiti urging on both pros and amateurs.

Having settled into the procession for the infamous grind up the road that leads to Chalet Reynard and onto the Ventoux summit, I’m not sure anyone notices as we abandon our place in the line and instead turn off into the forest.

Only place to start

Just like most cyclists attempting Mont Ventoux, our day started in the pretty commune of Bédoin. The jumping-off point for most of the Tour’s many trips up this storied mountain, Bédoin sits at around 300m above sea level.

It’s late summer and in the farmlands surrounding the roads out of town the grape harvest is just being brought in.

As a result, each bend is sticky from the overspill left by the automated lorries that strip the vines. To the left lies our goal for the day: the candy-striped weather station atop Ventoux, just visible high up through the haze.

To the right, vineyards and lavender fields roll down towards the Mediterranean. In short, it’s peak Provence.

In town it’s market day. As residents stock up on supplies so its cafes are fortifying gaggles of cyclists, almost all of whom will be travelling in the same direction. Given its geography, there’s no option but to head upwards once leaving Bédoin.

Although the town lends its name to the most famous route up Ventoux, the actual climb – the one on which you can compare your times to Pantani, Indurain or Virenque – begins 5km later, just past Les Bruns.

Slowed up by the rising incline, it’s here we find ourselves in among the day’s prospects, an almost uninterrupted line of cyclists making for the summit, the road they’re on stretching up the alternatingly cambered tarmac as it cuts through Ventoux’s lower slopes.

Slotting ourselves in, the absence of motorised traffic combines with a shared purpose to foster a sense of camaraderie. Yet although we’re all making for the same summit, my guide and I have other plans on how to get there.

So after gaining a few hundred metres of elevation we swing off the road and leave our new friends to their tarmac-based toiling.

Rather than racing up the road to discover our place among the 150,000-plus attempts on Ventoux listed on Strava, we plan to try to forge a new route to the top.

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Devised by my riding companion Spencer, who’s lucky enough to live at the foot of the mountain, this will involve taking the equally stunning but far less frequented gravel tracks that also traverse the mountain.

Turning onto the first stretch of fire road at around 800m, the looser surface instantly makes it obvious how much extra effort our plan is likely to involve. It doesn’t seem like we’re going to have much company either.

Ventoux is probably cycling’s most famous mountain and, for my money, it’s a more intriguing and attractive prospect than its only real rival for that title, Alpe d’Huez.

However, this means it’s also one of the most ridden, written about and photographed lumps anywhere on Earth.

Unsurprisingly, generating a fresh angle on it is something of a challenge. Yet as we swing around an early bend to see its barren peak and famous red and white weather station floating above an empty gravel road, I think we might have found one.

Now all we need to do is make it up to the top.

Alone on Ventoux

On these early slopes the summit hovers carrot-like above us. With no guide to the profile, both my legs and a little back-of-a-napkin calculation suggest the route we’re following takes in similar gradients to those found on the road.

That means somewhere around the 10% mark, which is hard enough in itself, but here it also seems that whenever the route gets steeper, the surface breaks up even more.

Periods of moderate respite are interspersed with sections where every other rock seems determined to stall our wheels or cause us to slide out.

Occasionally we find ourselves on what appears to be the remnants of once-metalled surfaces, while at other times the going is much rougher. Either way, it’s the sort of thing that makes you imagine being a mountain ranger in possession of a 4×4 would be a fun way to make a living.

Eventually, after around 8km of weaving our way up the contour lines of Ventoux’s southern flank, we finally pop out of the trees and onto a flatter section.

Now at around 1,500m we’re presented with an expansive view eastwards towards Avignon and the Rhône Valley. Unusually for such a vast mountain, the region Ventoux overlooks is almost entirely flat. Nevertheless, its lonely status somehow serves only to reinforce how huge it is.

Pick a mountain from among the Alps and the sheer number of surrounding peaks makes assessing its true size almost impossible.

Thus standing by itself it’s much easier to get a feel for the enormous quantity of limestone that constitutes Ventoux. It’s as if every rock for hundreds of miles has been swept into a pile and deposited in the corner of Provence.

With 400m of that limestone still above us and having battled exclusively upwards until this point, our track finally decides to stop fighting the mountain.

Instead it flattens and swings around the peak’s western ridge, allowing us to make good headway along a trail that winds around the back of the mountain, only to plonk us back onto Ventoux’s tarmacked road.

The going is suddenly much smoother, but any feeling of respite is short-lived – there’s still another four kilometres of HC-worthy road to duel with until the very top.

Back in among the roadies, this time those tackling the climb via Malaucène, our chunkier tyres don’t do much to slow us down – certainly not as much as my general lack of fitness.

Soon we turn to face the summit again, this time from the north. Its reappearance coincides almost precisely with us finding ourselves above the treeline for the first time.

This gives us a clear view of the remaining set of switchbacks that twist awkwardly up the barren, white slopes towards Ventoux’s needle.

Having the meteorological station to aim for helps keep us going, and the last three ramps to the top give us plenty of time to take in the view.

Then, with a quick turn off the road and onto the car-free summit track, all of a sudden we’re deposited beside a sign proclaiming ‘Sommet du Ventoux 1,910m’. Even the most blasé rider would struggle not to nab a surreptitious selfie.

A quick audit of the many cyclists milling around confirms that, with our gravel tyres, we constitute a minority of two. In fact, on the entire way up we saw a grand total of two hikers and two mountain bikers.

Taking a moment to survey the weird lunar landscape of Ventoux’s desolate and wind-scoured upper slopes, our collective thoughts turn to lunch.

Below us lie the mountain’s most famous grades. Penned in against the scree slope by snow poles, it’s here that the most memorable episodes in Ventoux’s history have been played out. We turn tail and descend.

Past the memorial to Tom Simpson then down the hill to the right, we spot the trail we’re taking home running parallel to the road. A few more gravity-fed minutes later we’re installed at Chalet Reynard and enjoying a mediocre, but much-needed, croque monsieur.

A little more than halfway around and with all of our climbing behind us, it would be easy to sit and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. However, descending an HC climb via tracks and fire roads is a very different proposition to freewheeling down paved road. And that was before the weather put its oar in.

Our original plan had been to ride up the back of Ventoux on gravel before breaking onto the road and tackling the last stretch between Chalet Reynard and the summit like a possessed pro.

Instead, storms yesterday left us wondering about the state of the penultimate gravel section, and not wanting to stall on a climb likely to be littered with rocks, we decided at the last minute to reverse our direction.

The prospect now facing us is riding down the kind of trails that we were planning to ride up, and they look none too inviting.

Multiple hazards

Just as I’m contemplating the odds of surviving the gravel descent, one of the mountain’s enormous Patou dogs wanders over. Employed to guard the sheep that graze the mountain, these canines have a fearsome reputation.

Luckily the ones on Ventoux seem well accustomed to cyclists. In fact, this particular example appears to have abandoned his flock to the wolves and instead taken to scrounging snacks from patrons at the restaurant.

Leaving it to its leftovers, we quickly pop back onto the gravel and again find ourselves alone on the mountain. Pinned below the road we’ve just descended, the wide gravel track we’re on slices its way around the folds of the hillside.

With the riders heading up to the summit still visible above us, it feels as if we’ve discovered a kind of secret second Ventoux.

With the surrounding scenery hitting the highest notes, it’s not long before we’re pointing down the section that we’d earmarked as troublesome. Straight and moderately steep, its surface is more mountain bike than gravel bike.

The recent storms have indeed cut it up, but as we progress gingerly it’s not quite so bad as we’d feared, even with the odd errant boulder in our path.

Having tackled it with the kind of caution and diligence required of a person who has been entrusted with an expensive prototype bicycle and a bronze-level travel insurance policy, I’m pleased to arrive at the bottom of the descent with nothing worse than stinging hands.

We find ourselves crossing the track we’d taken on the way up, which effectively marks the spot where riders on the way up can select which side of the climb to tackle. Just so long as they don’t expect a signpost.

Now bound for Bédoin and home, we take the fork heading into an expanse of forest that covers a bowled slope leading to the plain below. Our path zigzags its way between the famous roads that wind up either side, swooping through turns that exist solely for emergency access vehicles.

It’s much steeper than the way up and much of my concentration is devoted to simply trying to limit my drift to a moderate level. After 16km requiring little in the way of pedalling, we arrive in Bédoin, arms screaming from trail pump, faces grinning idiotically.

Back in town we take a seat at a bar already filled with cyclists reliving their epic stories of a day spent battling the Giant of Provence. That’s a fine challenge in itself, and one all cyclists should experience, but I wonder how many of my fellow riders have ever even considered forsaking the mountain’s storied tarmac for its gravel.

I can’t help feeling they’re all missing out, but then that is perhaps no bad thing – it meant we had Ventoux’s wildest side to ourselves, and still made it to the top.

This route might not have the history of Ventoux’s tarmac, but it has served up even more of the mountain.

The rider’s ride


Vitus Venon Evo, £tbc, vitusbikes.com

If you’ve never heard of the Venon Evo, that’s because it’s so new it isn’t even out yet – this bike is a prototype that Vitus gave to Cyclist for testing. I’m just thankful I didn’t crash it on one of Ventoux’s sketchy gravel descents.

The bike sits in between Vitus’s road bike, the Vitesse Evo, and its gravel bike, the Substance, and is designed to be comfortable on a range of surfaces – an ‘all-road’ bike.

As such, it can come specced with deep section wheels and a 2x groupset if you’re more road-oriented, or with shallow rims, chunky tyres and 1x groupset if you’re doing more gravel.

I actually opted for a bit of both – deep rims with wide tyres, and a 2x groupset but with a wide-range cassette. It proved to be the perfect setup for Ventoux’s combination of road, gravel and steep gradients.

To keep it road-friendly, the Venon Evo’s frame is light, the geometry is reasonably sporty, the cockpit is aero with fully internal cabling and there are no additional mounting points for bags or mudguards. Where it gets gravelly is in the clearance, the frameset accepting up to 40mm tyres.

If you like to mix up your riding but you’ve only got room for one bike in your garage, the Venon Evo is well worth a look.

Pine of the times


Ventoux owes its current tree cover to France’s early ecologists

Despite being known for its barren upper slopes, the tree cover on Mont Ventoux has actually expanded over the last few hundred years. It’s a trend slowly reversing many more centuries of deforestation.

Ventoux was first extensively exploited by the Romans, and humans spent the majority of years since then taking axes to the mountain’s trees in search of timber and grazing. As a result, by the middle of the 19th century much of Ventoux’s ancient woodland had been hacked away.

However, an act of early landscape restoration saw French soldiers spread millions of pine cones imported from Austria and Algeria across the hillsides in an effort to repopulate the mountain’s slopes.

Further disseminated by birds nibbling and discarding their seeds, the Atlas cedars and black pines selected were chosen for their resistance to drought and cold.

These replacement trees were first installed in the 1860s and now cover around 1,400 hectares, much to the puzzlement of arborealists unfamiliar with the mountain’s history. 

How we did it


Travel

Flights to Marseille from the UK are cheap and frequent, with budget airlines charging as little as £40 return.

Still, it’s still worth seeing if it’s cheaper overall to go with British Airways as its basic hold luggage allowance includes a bike. We then rented a car at the airport and drove the final 125km to Bédoin.

Accommodation

The base of operations for our stay in Provence was the outrageously charming La Ferme des Bélugues. Ideally located for Ventoux, this chambre d’hôte and gîte is a short and scenic ride from Bédoin.

Equipped with a bike workshop and wide range of spares, the accommodation also boasts a pool and very comfortable rooms. Expect to pay from around £100 a night. See lafermedesbelugues.com.

Thanks

Massive thanks are due to Karen and Spencer at La Ferme des Bélugues, who looked after us superbly and also planned the route.

Friendly service was had from Provence Cycles in nearby Malaucène, which would be our first call for repairs or rental. And for a post-ride beer, we can definitely recommend Le Flandrien in Bédoin.